Can George Howell Sell Coffee Like Everyone Sells Wine?
George Howell photo by Miller Mobley for “Back to the Grind”
How much are you willing to pay for a great cup of coffee? And what does your price threshold say about you? Those are two questions I asked nearly everyone I spoke to while profiling coffee aficionado George Howell, who sold his chain of iconic Coffee Connection cafes to Starbucks 20 years ago and is scouting out space in Boston for a new flagship cafe.
Howell’s concept is to sell coffee like wine, showcasing the most rare and expensive beans on the planet, while also carrying high-quality affordable roasts that are more palatable to the masses. It’s a move made in part to help economically support small farmers, Howell says, and that might mean that yes, some cups of coffee could approach the double digits. But if you found yourself shaking your head at the thought of pulling out a Hamilton to cover your morning fix, be forewarned. Starbucks, the company credited with pushing the cost of a caffeine fix up to more than a five dollar footlong, has just announced that they’ll begin serving Geisha coffee, a rare, difficult-to-grow varietal of bean, at certain locations for the cost of $7 a cup. That’s a long stretch from the bottomless five cent cups that diner waitresses poured in the 50s, but now, it’s not unheard of for independent “third wave” specialty coffee shops to offer cups at similar high prices.
These specialty coffee shops are “really indebted to Starbucks for teaching [us] to overpay for coffee,” says Bryant Simon, a history professor at Temple University, and the author of Everything but the Coffee: Learning About America from Starbucks. “Starbucks’ hold on the broad middle class is pretty undiminished. It’s recovered [from its financial downturn] and is beginning to open stores again.”
Simon notes that the “cultural leaders have moved on” from Starbucks, no longer thinking of it as the epitome of coolness or a source for really great, standout coffee varieties (hence the Geisha). “What we now want to see is if the masses are going to follow” and be willing to pay more for a better cup of coffee, he says. “It might be beyond their grasp. They might know they might not get their status raised by Starbucks, but maybe by a beer choice instead.”
So what to make of the proliferation of high-end coffee shops cropping up across Boston serving pour overs, siphon brews, and other concoctions at their “slow bars”?
“Most people, if you take a cup of [that] coffee and douse it with milk and sugar, they’re not paying for the taste,” Simon says. “They’re telling someone about the experience of paying for a $4 cup of coffee. The performance becomes parts of its value. The time, it’s a treat.” Now, in a post-Starbucks era, these cafes are the new way for us to convey that we’re “sophisticated and knowledgeable,” he adds. “This is the way culture reproduces itself. When you sell something as ephemeral as status, you can’t hold onto it forever.”